When communicating with toddlers, you have to speak literally, basically channeling Amelia Bedelia and thinking carefully about every word you use. You must be clear as a freshly washed window.
And when listening to a toddler, you have to search for the unsaid words, while simultaneously sorting through the garbled interpretation of the language presented. Many times what a toddler says makes no sense, especially out of context, which is typically how a toddler talks. He might say something like “Today I was dinosaur and kitty was up there. I had the yellow one.” And what the toddler is referring to is sometime last month when there was a kitten in the neighbor’s tree and he was wearing his favorite dinosaur t-shirt and carrying his yellow bucket.
I would give anything to go back to the simplicity of communicating with my teenagers when they were toddlers. It was much easier.
This afternoon my daughter arrived home from school. “Hi!” I said brightly. She continued to rummage through the cupboards without acknowledging me.
I’m used to this because my oldest has ear buds permanently installed in his ears. It’s necessary to physically get his attention. I must clap or yell (just like our 15-year-old dog who can’t hear either).
There were no ear buds in my lovely daughter’s ears, so I tried again, “How was school?”
This elicited a groan. And then she mumbled, “I have to go to school early tomorrow to try out for the bass solo,” as she exited the kitchen with a bowl of pretzels.
I count it to my credit that I said nothing about the “no food outside the kitchen” rule as I followed her in to the living room to ask, “What time?”
Just two little words, but apparently it was two too many, because she turned to me and yelled, “I don’t know, whenever you want!”
To which I calmly (and rationally) asked, “What time do you need to be there?”
“I don’t know. It doesn’t matter,” she shrieked, looking at me as if I was quite possibly the dumbest on the Dumb and Dumber Set, before launching herself on to the couch in a huff.
At this point I began to wonder if I was speaking a completely different language. I longed for the time when she was a toddler and might have said, “All the princesses have to be there when the sun comes up.”
I tried another tactic. I decided to go for process of elimination. “So if I take you at 7:30, which would be the most convenient time me, would that be too late?”
Her anger only swelled and her scream got louder. “I don’t know! Take me at 7!”
“Okay,” I said calmly and fled the room to avoid further antagonizing her with my ridiculous questions.
Later I picked up my oldest at the high school. He said, “Hey,” as he climbed in the front seat and promptly put in his ear buds.
Undeterred, I waited until I saw him changing his play list. “How was your day?”
“Been better,” he replied and pressed play.
He seemed deflated. This is my mostly positive kid who used to entertain me with monologues he’d memorized from teachers, movies, and books. He’ll still do that when he’s in the mood and I have the time. Today he seemed sad. And not in the mood to talk. We drove in silence for awhile. I desperately wanted to know what had made my child so sad, but I’ve learned that, much like toddlers, teens talk when the mood strikes. Sadly, the mood doesn’t strike nearly as often as it does with toddlers. And at times, it makes just about as much sense.
So I tried to pry gently, “So it wasn’t a great day?”
He pulled out one earbud. He is patient with his well-meaning mother. He started to run through his classes, giving me a one or two sentence description of the events of each class. When he got to lunch and the trouble with his partners for the calculus project, he warmed to the subject and gave me the ugly details. Soon he was spinning out his frustration with his day at length. I listened, helplessly. That’s pretty much all I can do anymore.
When they were toddlers and had a problem, it was easy to help them fix it. But now that they look me in the eye, their emotions are more complicated and there is very little I can do except listen. So I try. At least when they let me.
I’m learning as I go, but communicating with teens seems to mean closing my mouth and opening my ears more than anything. It’s not my first instinct. Luckily, I have three great teachers.